There’s one sample piece of music you’ve probably heard, one so often used and yet you might not even know it, one used in almost 3,000 different songs the world over: the Amen break.
From the 1980s and moving forward, this 6-second drum solo gained fame and widespread use in the world of hip hop, breakbeat, drum and bass, techno, digital hardcore, etc. Sometimes, it’s sampled in its pure, raw form, sometimes it is recreated. But no matter how it’s produced, it’s a piece of music that is very familiar.
Its appeal lies in its groove. It’s syncopated, versatile and colorful, both modern and timeless. In a documentary about the drum solo, documentary maker Nate Harrison states, “The rhythm itself is syncopated so there’s [sic] lots of variations on the drums you can derive from sampling the original break. It’s really conducive to chopping and rearranging. It also sonically has this punch to it that makes it unique.”
Let’s take a deeper look into its roots: the Amen break originally started as a drum solo in the song “Amen, Brother” by The Winstons. This funk/soul band saw drummer Gregory Sylvester “G.C.” Coleman perform the famous Amen break in a B-side song. Heartbreakingly, Coleman never really saw the fruits of his work, never having received royalties- because he never went and sought them out in the first place- and passing away homeless in 2006 and likely unaware the impact he’s made on music. Nevertheless, his legacy is immortalized in a spectrum of genres.
Meanwhile, the copyright owner and The Winstons lead singer, Richard Spencer, never sought out royalties either, and has called songs sampling the famous piece at once both “plagiarism” and “flattering.”
Going back to the Amen, Brother track by The Winstons, it was actually a more obscure B-side back when it was released in 1969. Loosely based on a gospel song, titled “Amen, Brother” as well, it was created to work as a B-side to accompany their song “Color Him Father.” Strangely enough, the famous drum solo was actually performed to pad the song’s length!
There have been some disagreements with regards to who actually came up with the drum solo. On one hand, Spencer states he directed it. On the other, Phil Tolotta, who played organs and was co-lead vocals, claims it was “pure GC.”
And what was a once overlooked piece of music would soon boom into popularity in the middle of the 1980s. Sampling was getting more popular in the hip-hop industry and it just so happened that the Amen break was discovered. Out of the 80s and onwards, songs left and right began to sample the drum solo.
Going into the 1990s, British music producers and DJs stepped up to the plate and used the drum solo as samples for their own brand of dance music. The Amen break featured prominently in jungle music, breakbeat, ragga jungle, hardcore, etc. You can hear it in rap outfit Salt-N-Pepa’s 1986 song I Desire, in David Bowie’s 1997 hit Little Wonder, and in Björk’s 2011 track Crystalline.
It’s become so famous and so used, in fact, that it’s taken on the title of one of the most sampled drum beats ever. To this day, you can still hear the Amen break in new songs and there’s been a resurgence in interest in the old-school Jungle genre.